Thais welcome royal barge procession after five year hiatus

BANGKOK Fri Nov 9, 2012 7:22am EST

1 of 2. Thai oarsmen row royal barges during the Royal Barge Procession on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok November 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Golden barges shaped like swans and mythical sea creatures glided down the Chao Phraya river that winds through the Thai capital of Bangkok on Friday in a 700-year-old ceremony, with more than 2,000 rowers taking part.

The Royal Barge Procession, held for the first time in five years and presided over by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, emphasizes the importance of water to the people of Thailand.

Water has historically been a lifeline for Thais and expressions such as "nam jai", which translates as "water of the heart" or "kindness," highlight this.

"Tears roll down from my eyes when I watch the procession because it really is something extraordinary to behold," said Kanjana Kamsongsee, 59, a hospital administrator who watched.

The ancient procession, featuring 52 exquisitely crafted golden barges draped with strings of jasmine, was revived by Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1960 after a lapse of several decades and takes place at the end of Buddhist Lent, with robes presented to Buddhist monks as part of the event.

It was last held in 2007 to celebrate the king's 80th birthday, with the crown prince presiding as he also did on Friday. King Bhumibol has been in hospital recovering from an illness since September 2009.

Last year, Thailand was hit by its worst floods in half a century, with water submerging entire towns and villages, forcing the event's cancellation.

As the barges made their one hour journey down the river, 2,200 oarsmen dressed in ornate costumes - Thai navy sailors in reality - rowed in synchronized movements to the sound of chanting, passing iconic landmarks such as Wat Arun, the porcelain-encrusted Temple of Dawn.

"Rain or shine, I come every time the procession is held because my belief is that taking part in the end of Buddhist Lent is of high religious merit," said Supanee Chankhun, 59. "I am proud to be Thai today." (Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, editing by Elaine Lies)